But we should not let those lucky escapes distract us. This was an attack on democracy, an attack on our election, an attack on our elected representatives — incited by the president himself and carried out, among others, by a particularly dangerous group of radical extremists.
Although the mob included several constituencies, ranging from Trump fans to believers in disproved QAnon conspiracies, one set of people involved should cause particular alarm. Among the crowd were activists from the white power movement, neo-Nazis, Proud Boys and other members of the militant right — people who have dedicated themselves to provoking race war and to the violent overthrow of the country. This week, they marched on the Capitol at the behest of the president. But there is no reason to think he can call them off or subdue their violence: Indeed, his halfhearted attempts to do so Wednesday had little effect. Nor do we believe his Thursday “concession” speech will curtail violent action.
Some conservative commentators and lawmakers suggested, falsely, that what happened Wednesday was a case of a peaceful pro-Trump protests being infiltrated by violent left-wing antifa activists. Experts quickly and resoundingly rejected that claim. Right-wing extremists organized their action long before Wednesday’s assault on the Capitol. They massed at statehouses across the country Wednesday, as well, showing a nationally coordinated movement.
That’s no surprise: Since the early 1980s, the white power movement has carried out a string of violent actions meant to destabilize the country and bring about civil strife. Some examples include assassinations and kidnappings of political enemies, federal judges and state troopers; coordinated bombings of synagogues, infrastructure targets and the Oklahoma City federal building; a sustained campaign of harassment and terror aimed at communities of color; and obtaining and training with stolen military weapons and explosives.
At the Capitol this week, we saw evidence of the white power presence through repeated references to “The Turner Diaries,” a novel that has worked as a manual of operations for these activists for decades. The novel imagines a successful coup by white power activists who take over a homeland, then the United States, then the world. Several of the methods used in the book appeared in the attempted insurrection. One is the “Day of the Rope,” in which “traitors” (including members of Congress, people in interracial relationships, journalists and other enemies) are publicly hanged. This week, the mob erected a gallows, and people took selfies in front of it.
“The Turner Diaries” also prominently features an attack on the U.S. Capitol, though somewhat different than what we saw; in the book, it’s a mortar attack. But significantly, the point of the attack is not a mass casualties, but to show not-yet-radicalized White people that even the Capitol can be attacked. Like this week’s action, it’s meant to be a show of force.
This historical context is important: “The Turner Diaries” has been enormously important to white power, militant right and accelerationist activists not because it's a good novel, but because it explains how a small number of people might overthrow the United States. And the plan outlined in the book is profoundly genocidal and anti-democratic, eventually involving the annihilation of all non-White people throughout the world using chemical, nuclear and biological weapons.
Some of the people who stormed the Capitol this week, then, come from the same movement that has been threatening democracy and killing civilians for decades, if not generations. The attempted insurrection didn't come out of nowhere — it follows a history we can learn and understand to combat this very dangerous ideology. As a reminder, the nation in white nationalism is the Aryan nation, not the United States. This movement is anti-American.
As they process the trauma they’ve endured, we hope members of Congress realize the fear and panic they experienced Wednesday have already been felt by many other communities. They now share an experience with people who survived white power attacks in Charlottesville, El Paso, Pittsburgh, Charleston and Oklahoma City. People of color and Muslim and Jewish faith communities have lived with this fear for decades. But now, perhaps, the broader political system can understand this as a clear and present danger to everyone who cares about democracy.
The enemy we face existed for decades before Trump: He has simply fanned a long-burning flame. Counterterrorism and extremist experts have been expressing alarm about the growing emboldenment of violent white extremists for years. Over the past 10 years, 76 percent of extremist-related killings were conducted by right-wing extremists, the preponderance of those by white power activists. The Department of Homeland Security’s current threat assessment shows that white extremism — and not leftist or Islamist extremism — represents the greatest terrorist threat to our country.
From the history of this movement and open-source intelligence, we know that this week was a salvo in a continuing battle. “Insurrection” is the right word, because we should understand this as one battle in a larger war — that’s how the militants will view it. In extremist spaces online, activists view this as a victory: They stormed the Capitol, breached the building, made legislators cower and delayed the certification of a free election. It was successful as a show of force, and they will be emboldened to do more. And we know from “The Turner Diaries” and from the real violence carried out in its image that what comes next will be mass casualty attacks. This is the same movement that delivered our nation’s largest mass-casualty event between Pearl Harbor and 9/11 — and the 168 killed and hundreds injured in the 1995 Oklahoma City bombing represent only part of the casualties we have endured at the hands of white extremists.
In the face of this grave threat, vague statements with platitudes about this “not being who we are” won’t cut it. Nor will Cabinet members simply resigning in protest. They have to act if they want to help, beginning with the removal of the inciter-in-chief. If Vice President Pence is unwilling to fulfill his oath of office to protect the United States “from all enemies, foreign and domestic” and lead the Cabinet in invoking the 25th Amendment, Congress must act. Congressional Republicans of integrity and with a true love for their country should recognize the grave threat we face and support impeachment and conviction. Because the threat is coming from the right, it is all the more critical for the denouncement of violent extremism to come from the right. A united Republican response removing the individual most responsible for the incitement and empowerment of violent extremism would send a swift message that the United States will not tolerate supporting terrorism in any form — even when it comes from within their own party.
But because Trump is not in control of this groundswell, the action cannot end there. Congress and the Biden administration will need to do more than just acknowledge violent white-supremacist extremism as our top terrorist threat: They also need to update statutes and policies to ensure counterterrorism and law enforcement professionals can address it. They need to swiftly investigate any valid accusations of law enforcement turning a blind eye or enabling white supremacists, including at the Capitol on Wednesday, and insist on a significant assessment of infiltration within the ranks of the military and law enforcement. And given the size of the problem we face, they need to expand prevention efforts and deradicalization resources to take pressure off law enforcement and counterterrorism professionals.
We must hold our officials accountable and demand an appropriately urgent response. If we do not, attacks on Americans and our democratic institutions will continue.